Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling
Words – Carly Stevenson
Faithfully adapted from the 2009 gothic novel by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger is an elegant haunted house drama set against the backdrop of postwar Britain.
Beginning in the summer of 1948, the story is narrated by Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a country physician who finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the Ayres family after he is summoned to examine their maid Betty. Faraday (whose forename is withheld throughout) discovers that Betty’s ‘illness’ is in fact terror: she believes Hundreds Hall, the Ayres’ dilapidated family estate, to be haunted by a malevolent spirit. Encouraged by Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson), Faraday becomes a regular guest at Hundreds Hall and his growing intimacy with the family offers him a unique perspective on the lives of the fading gentry.
It becomes clear that all three members of the Ayres family are haunted by the past in some way: Mrs Ayres by the death of her youngest daughter, Rod (Will Poulter) by the physical and mental pain of war and Caroline by the life she could have led if she weren’t trapped by the weight of ancestral responsibilities. Stifled by the oppressive walls of Hundreds Hall, Caroline’s days are devoted to running the estate and looking after her wounded brother. Although Rod is the master of the house on paper, it is Caroline who keeps everything in working order. Ruth Wilson’s accomplished performance is the highlight of this sombre drama and her awkward relationship with Faraday is central to our understanding of both characters.
The film makes it clear that Faraday is more in love with the house than he is with Caroline, however, Caroline’s own sexuality is more mysterious. In one scene, she and Faraday attend a local dance together, where she recognises a female friend and spends the evening dancing enthusiastically with her instead, subtly hinting at the possibility of a secret and unacknowledged longing. Faraday, too, has a secret: as a child, he broke off a piece of ornate, plaster border at Hundreds during a May Day party that he attended with his mother, who was part of the workforce of the house during its golden years. This memory reveals that The Little Stranger is a story of possession, in both senses of the word.
As Hundreds Hall cracks and crumbles amidst societal change (the introduction of a Labour government, the rise of the welfare state and the birth of the NHS all occurred during this period), so do its inhabitants, who are plagued by violent and seemingly supernatural occurrences in the house. There is a claustrophobic atmosphere of decay and stagnation in this film that gradually worsens as the plot unfolds, creating moments of prolonged tension and discomfort. The Little Stranger is by no means a horror film, but rather, it is a ghostly story for times of austerity.